Animal Welfare Policy and the Zoo/Wildlife Veterinary Community: A View From the Trenches
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2008
David S. Miller1, MS, DVM, DACZM; Gail C. Golab2, PhD, DVM; Jim Sikarskie3, DVM, MS, DACZM; Tim Reichard4, MS, DVM
1Genesis Laboratories, Wellington, CO, USA; 2American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, IL, USA; 3Veterinary Medical Center, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA; 4Dr Tim’s Wildlife and Exotics Care, Toledo, OH, USA


Zoological medicine veterinarians can influence animal welfare policy via their daily activities or by involvement in regional, national, or international policy initiatives. Multiple options exist for addressing animal welfare topics, including working with existing veterinary organizations. One option for zoological medicine veterinarians in the USA is to work with zoological medicine veterinary associations, such as the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) and American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (AAWV), in the development of policies and recommendations for other actions and activities that can be submitted to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) for review and possible adoption. However, there must be recognition that some animal welfare issues are more complex than might be initially appreciated, and caution must be exercised to ensure that policy statements, laws, rules, and various communications consider the potential for unintended consequences. Recent AAZV and AAWV position statements were the basis of new and revised AVMA policy statements, and also serve as a means of educating the public and other veterinarians about issues of concern to zoological medicine veterinarians. These are examples that illustrate the potential for zoological medicine veterinarians to influence policies and legislation that affect their daily activities, as well as educate society at large.


The 2002 the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) strategic plan was developed with the intent of providing strategies for members of the association to serve as advocates and resources for zoological medicine concerns.1 Animal welfare is one area where the AAZV and related organizations can serve as a resource. Animal welfare is a subject that is central to the veterinarian’s oath and professional responsibilities. However, animal welfare issues are often complex, and nondomestic animals present some unique challenges. Nevertheless, members of the AAZV have many opportunities in their professional activities and through their associations to raise issues for consideration and improve animal welfare. Potential avenues for influencing animal welfare policies include working within zoological medicine associations and/or the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

From the perspective of representatives of the AAZV and American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (AAWV) on the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee (AWC), it is important for members of the AAZV and AAWV to understand the following:

1.  The basics of AVMA organizational structure and how AVMA policies are developed

2.  The complexity of the values that are incorporated into assessments of animal welfare

3.  The unintended consequences that can result when a particular animal welfare issue is addressed without considering the ‘big picture’

4.  Recent updates to AAZV and AAWV animal welfare policy statements

AVMA Organizational Structure

The AVMA is the largest veterinary organization in North America, has a strong presence in the media, and has staff devoted to both ensuring the robustness of the Association’s scientific policy basis (Schaumburg offices) and influencing public policy (Washington D.C. for federal issues and Schaumburg for state issues). AVMA policy is often highly influential upon the development of laws and regulations in the USA, is often regarded as a source of “gold standards” for animal welfare by multiple animal interest groups, and may be used as a tool to sway public opinion. Consequently, an understanding of the AVMA organizational structure and how policies are developed is important for those wishing to influence AVMA policy. Although the AVMA may be perceived as a monolithic entity, if one wants to influence its policies, it must be remembered that it is composed of people.

Groups of people that play a role in AVMA policy development include:

1.  Councils

2.  Committees

3.  Task forces

4.  The House of Delegates (HOD)

5.  The Executive Board (EB)

There are many AVMA councils, committees, and task forces that can influence AVMA policy. Committees that have AAZV or AAWV representation include the Animal Welfare Committee (AWC), Clinical Practitioners Advisory Committee, the Committee on the Human-Animal Bond, and the Committee on Environmental Issues. In addition, the American Board of Veterinary Specialties has a seat for a representative of the American College of Zoological Medicine, which includes some members of the AAZV and AAWV.

The AWC comprises representatives from multiple veterinary and veterinary-related organizations and is supported by AVMA staff with subject-matter expertise. The representatives are appointed from taxon-based (e.g., zoo and wildlife, felid, poultry) allied veterinary organizations, state veterinary medical associations, and veterinary-related interest groups (e.g., humane societies). Other individuals serve as consultants or liaisons to the AWC. The AVMA staff supporting the AWC is part of the recently created AVMA Animal Welfare Division. The AVMA staff support the AWC by coordinating the biannual meeting logistics, completing literature reviews, and compiling other subject-specific background information, and by many other means. They are particularly valuable for identifying sound science on which to base policy development, which is a core philosophy of the organization. It is worth noting that the AVMA strives to support its allied veterinary groups, which include the AAZV and the AAWV.

Prior to each biannual meeting, AWC representatives are provided with a briefing book that includes references, communications, pending legislation that is of interest to the AVMA, and other information that is relevant to issues to be discussed at the meeting. Literature, documents, and opinions are also exchanged via email, telephone, or surface mail during interim periods as a part of general AWC discussion or subcommittee deliberations. A topic can be introduced to the AWC for discussion by an AWC representative, other AVMA entities (e.g., councils, committees, task forces, EB, HOD), an AVMA member, AVMA staff, or upon the request of outside parties. Many AVMA policy statements are based on documents developed by allied veterinary groups. All AWC policies receive close, line-by-line scrutiny from all AWC representatives and are, therefore, considered from a wide range of perspectives. If the AWC passes a position statement, it is subsequently forwarded to the AVMA EB for consideration. As part of their deliberations, the EB conducts an independent review of new and revised policy statements. Background on the committee’s related discussions in formulating the new or revised policy is provided in the form of a formal written recommendation and clarified as necessary by a member of the EB, who attends AWC meetings as a liaison between the two groups.

AWC representatives are nominated by their respective groups and appointed by the EB. EB members are elected by the AVMA membership within their represented district, and HOD members include representatives from each state or from allied veterinary groups that meet size and AVMA membership criteria. The AAZV and AAWV have sought to have a representative in the HOD in the past, but have not been able to meet the size and AVMA membership criteria. This may change in the future.

Complexity of Issues and Unintended Consequences

Animal welfare issues sometimes appear to be straightforward, but are less so when examined more closely. This is because the issue of concern often does not exist in isolation from other considerations. In addition, personal value systems are an important part of an individual’s assessment of animal welfare. For instance, whether one favors a pen, cage, or free-range housing for egg production by laying hens may depend upon how one ranks the importance of housing density, opportunities for dust baths, risk of cannibalism and injury from cagemates, risk of being predated upon, economic efficiencies, disease control, and other factors that are not directly comparable (G. Golab unpublished) in their overall measurement of welfare.

As a consequence of the complexity of some animal welfare issues, proposals sometimes arise that are intended to address a specific concern, but that result in undesirable, unintended consequences. An example includes recent state and federal bills that are intended to prevent the slaughter of horses for food in the United States. In part, the motivation for these acts represents a societal shift in the perception of horses as livestock to a position as companion animals. As a consequence of some of these bills, there are currently no plants open in the USA for horse slaughter. This has resulted in a well-publicized increase in the export of horses to other countries, some of which have animal welfare standards that fall short of standards that were previously in effect for horse slaughter in the USA. In addition, there is concern that increased numbers of horses will be abandoned or neglected, and efforts are being made to identify means of mitigating this outcome. Whether legislation can be developed to achieve the intended goals of the original bills without undesirable, unintended consequences remains to be seen. Similar challenges exist for nondomestic animals. As an example, a proposed bill that was recently drafted for the House of Representatives was intended to curb trade in bear bile products. Although the intent of this legislation was consistent with AAZV and AAWV policy, a review of the bill by veterinarians and biologists with wildlife perspectives revealed that the original language of the bill may have the unintended consequence of halting many legitimate conservation, research, and diagnostic activities for bears, as well as potentially undermine existing legislation that is intended to protect bear welfare. These two examples illustrate the importance of broad perspectives and AAZV/AAWV input into animal welfare issues.

Recent AAZV and AAWV Policies and the AVMA

Two recent policies recommended by the AVMA AWC for approval by the Executive Board illustrate the potential for the AAZV and AAWV to influence AVMA policy development. One concern that was raised by veterinarians with elephant veterinary care responsibilities was over legislation that was pending in various parts of the country to ban the use of guides and tethers for managing elephants. The motivation for this proposed legislation is based on concerns for the abuse of guides and tethers for elephant management, as well as the opinions of those that are opposed to the keeping of elephants in captivity. The intent of banning abuse of guides and tethers for elephants represents genuine concern for elephant welfare. However, the unintended consequences of such legislation include the potential to limit the husbandry and handling options for elephants, including reproductive management strategies such as artificial insemination and management of parturition. Consequently, the AAZV developed a policy statement supporting the appropriate use of guides and tethers for elephants. The AVMA AWC recently recommended a condensed version of this statement for consideration by the EB, and this condensed version was subsequently adopted by the EB.

The AAWV recently developed a position statement with the intent of seeking revisions to an existing AVMA policy, as well as educating other veterinarians and the public on a very complex issue. The existing AVMA policy on leghold traps simply indicated that such devices are inhumane.

This statement was of concern because:

1.  It was being used as a basis for banning all leghold trap use by some animal activist groups

2.  Existing AVMA policy did not specifically acknowledge recently developed international standards for trap design and application2

3.  It did not recognize that such traps are needed for many important wildlife management programs, such as otter restoration and mitigation of animal damage to human enterprises

4.  It did not recognize the potential value of leghold traps for control of populations posing risks of zoonotic diseases

5.  The existing wording had potential legal ramifications for wildlife veterinarians’ licenses

Consequently, the research citations and position statement provided by the AAWV provided an important part of the justification for a new AVMA policy on foothold traps that would be more consistent with the published scientific research on foothold traps, justify the use of these devices for achieving important management objectives by natural resource agencies, and educate the public on some of the complexities of trapping as a wildlife management tool.

The above examples illustrate the importance of involvement in AAZV, AAWV, and other associations’ committee activities. They also illustrate the potential for educating the public and other veterinarians via development of policy statements that are posted on the Web or communicated via other means. Consequently, a broad range of perspectives contributes to the development of balanced position and policy statements. It is also an avenue to communicate recent publications in peer-reviewed literature that can be applied to improving animal welfare.


Recent AAZV and AAWV statements have provided important background for policies recently recommended for adoption by the AVMA AWC. This demonstrates that members of the zoological medicine community can have an influence on AVMA policy and potentially have an impact on legislation and regulations in the USA that impact the daily activities of zoo and wildlife veterinarians. Consequently, for members of the zoological medicine community with specific or general animal welfare concerns, it is important to become involved in the Legislative and Animal Welfare committee of the AAZV, AAWV committees, or other organizations’ committee activities. It is important for zoological medicine veterinarians to be actively engaged in dialogue with various segments of society on animal welfare issues, and where possible, provide peer-reviewed publications that can help guide development of animal welfare policies and regulations. It is also important for zoological medicine associations to effectively communicate their knowledge and concerns to the AVMA, as well as to the public.

Literature Cited

1.  American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. Strategic plan and futures search. Workshop, May 30–June 2, 2002. White Oak Plantation, Yulee, FL. 2002.

2.  Furbearer Conservation Technical Work Group. Best management practices (BMPs) for trapping in the United States. Washington, D.C., Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. 2006:1–13.


Speaker Information
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David S. Miller, MS, DVM, DACZM
Genesis Laboratories
Wellington, CO, USA

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